Except the stars of “showbiz” and spectator sports to whom all is forgiven, fat cats do not have a good press. Even those who have done great things, built and run vast and vastly productive organisations employing thousands of men and women who are all at least a little better off as a result, – even captains of industry are widely blamed for their income and wealth that is regarded as ranging from the provocative to the obscene. When, by a combination of gross collective misjudgment, ill luck, mass hysteria fostered by the perverse incentives governing the panic-mongering media and equally perverse solvency and accounting rules the fat cats of finance got themselves in deep trouble, the jubilant public all but cheered. Admittedly, as the music stopped, many bankers displayed singularly bad taste, but even perfect discretion would not have saved them from the detestation owed to fat cats.
At the other extremity of society, the underdog enjoys general sympathy. There is a presumption that he must be in the right and the top dog (or should it be overdog?) is in the wrong. This is so not because of what either may have done, but because one is now beneath the other. The top dog may be blameless, but sympathy goes to the underdog and sympathy is easily mistaken for an imperative of justice.
All these sentiments and attitudes spring from deep-seated emotions that cloud cooler judgment. One such may be the shock and fear at the sight of gross inequalities of any kind that hurt what Isaiah Berlin called the “love of symmetry”. Another may be the emotive appeal that playing Robin Hood holds for most of us (and hang the Sheriff of Nottingham). Half emotion and half calculation inspire the gut feeling that rich-to-poor redistribution enhances the common good (the “aggregate utility” of superannuated textbooks ) while incidentally also raising the income of the person advocating it. Finally, pure emotion excites good old-fashioned envy; do down the fat cats, chop off the tall poppies even if the person feeling that way expects to reap no profit from it.
Extract from The Fat Cats, the Underdogs, and Social Justice published by Econlib.